It may be a tough pill to swallow for Brumbies fans, but having David Pocock sit out the rest of Super Rugby serves a much higher purpose.
With the World Cup now under four months away, Pocock must be given every opportunity to be in peak condition by the time the Wallabies run out for their opener against Fiji in Sapporo on September 21.
“The Wallabies medical staff and Brumbies medical staff will have a chat over the next few days and we’ll come to some sort of clarity there as to where he heads over the next two weeks,” Brumbies coach Dan McKellar said of Pocock earlier this week.
“There’s things we’ve got to look at to see whether he plays Super Rugby or whether we now put his attention towards the World Cup.”
Pocock hasn’t been sighted in Super Rugby since the Brumbies’ Round 4 loss to the Rebels in Melbourne. A calf injury, suffered at a Wallabies camp in early January, has condemned the veteran flanker to spectator status as his Brumbies teammates have climbed to the top of the Australian conference.
Tom Cusack, Pete Samu and Jahrome Brown have done a fine job in Pocock’s absence, while Lachie McCaffrey was also a key contributor before he too was injured. As for the rolling maul that was once Pocock’s responsibility, hooker Folau Fainga’a is Super Rugby’s leading try-scorer.
Rising back-rower Rob Valetini is returning via the bench against the Bulls on Friday, too, while McCaffrey could be back next week.
A win over the South Africans would be the Brumbies’ third on the trot, and fifth out of their last six, in what has been a stellar midseason revival. In fact, of the three games Pocock did play at the start of the season, the Brumbies lost each one.
That’s no broadside at Pocock’s performances, but more a question of whether he should have been playing in the first place.
While a calf injury has kept Pocock to 138 minutes of Super Rugby this year, the time off will have also aided his recovery from a debilitating neck injury that troubled him throughout 2018. Such was the punishment the 31-year-old took at the breakdown last year that both McKellar and Wallabies coach Michael Cheika had called for a greater focus on illegal neck rolls at the tackle.
And it’s not like he’s been sunning himself by Lake Burley Griffin, either. A quick look at Pocock’s Instagram account will tell you just how hard he’s been working in the gym.
And if turns out that, following a discussion between Brumbies and Wallabies medical staff, that program is targeted to a return during the Rugby Championship with an eye to peaking at the World Cup, then common sense will have prevailed.
For anyone who tells you that Israel Folau was the Wallabies’ most important player for the World Cup was wrong. That discussion is suddenly moot, but history confirms that even had Folau been around, it’s Pocock on whom the Wallabies will rely.
In 2011, the Wallabies were upset by Ireland in the pool stage at Eden Park. Pocock did not play. The 16-8 loss resulted in a quarterfinal showdown with South Africa a week later, which the Wallabies won, largely because of Pocock.
Pocock’s performance was so good that afternoon that South African supporters took to social media to vent their outrage at referee Bryce Lawrence. A better course of action would have been to pay Pocock the plaudits he deserved.
Four years later in London, Pocock cut a wounded figure. After taking a beating in the Wallabies’ wins over England and Wales, the latter in which Australia were reduced to 13 men for seven minutes, Pocock sat out the quarterfinal against Scotland.
The plucky Scots dominated the breakdown in Pocock’s absence and should have won the game, only to be denied by a questionable late offside penalty that allowed Bernard Foley to kick the Wallabies through to the semifinals.
While the Wallabies were beaten by New Zealand two weeks later, Pocock finished the tournament with the most number of breakdown turnovers , four more than the next best in South Africa’s Francois Louw. He scored one of only two Australian tries in the final, too.
Pocock’s value to the Wallabies at the last two World Cups is obvious, and so too should be the need for him to sit out the remainder of Super Rugby.
The Wallabies’ 2019 Cup campaign has been spluttering along since the start of last year, a season in which they won just four of 13 Test matches, and risking Pocock across the final weeks, albeit potentially harming the Brumbies’ bid for a third title in doing so, would be foolish.
Australia need their best player to be completely fit, or at least somewhere close to it, if they’re to contend in Japan. Even the most one-eye Brumbies supporter can surely see that.